John Carpenter | The Backlot | New York Film Academy

–This 6 year old child with this. blank pale emotionless face and. The blackest eyes. The devils eyes. I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply.

Evil. You see what we’re talking about here is an organism that imitates other life forms and it imitates them perfectly. You people sit tight hold the fort and keep the home fires burning and if we’re not back by dawn call the president You see I take these glasses off.

She looks like a regular person doesn’t she. Put them back on. Formaldehyde face.

The president is dead you got that somebody’s had him for dinner.

Nothing scared off. Killed him. You can’t kill the boogie man.

We’re not getting out of here alive. But neither is that thing.

Death has come to your own little town. Sheriff.

You can either ignore it or you can help me to stop it.–

Eric: Hello and welcome to the Backlot. I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. This episode we bring you the man who gave us Michael Meyers Snake Plissken and an invisible Chevy Chase.

–Writer, director, composer, John Carpenter.

Eric: John Carpenter’s work covers a number of genres from the Sci-Fi romance of starman to the fantastical Big Trouble in Little China but he’s mostly considered a master of modern horror even if that was not his original plan.

John Carpenter: Well you have to understand that horror found me I didn’t find it. I got typecast into this. I got in this business to make Westerns Westerns died Westerns went away and horror found me with Halloween. What happens in Hollywood you get typecast. Oh he made that but let’s off him this it’s the same thing. They want you to do the same thing again and again and make money at it. But I made a career out of it. I’ve got to become John Carpenter. What’s wrong with that. I’m happy about it. My influences were science fiction and horror movies and westerns musicals everything. When I was growing up back in the 50s I loved movies and then I went to film school I got to watch the work of the American classic directors Orson Welles Howard Hawks John Ford and then world directors.

That’s where I really deepened my love for cinema

Eric: Mr Carpenter’s influences can be seen throughout his work including his 1976 thriller assault on Precinct 13 a spiritual homage to Howard Hawks as Rio Bravo.

–We’re out of time out of ammunition just like wells we’re out of luck and never had too much faith in anyone coming to my rescue. Maybe you’ve been associating with the wrong people I’ve been with policemen for five years. That’s enough to grow hair on a rock.

You’re going to get out of town like your boy here with you going can tell Burdett you got Wheeler you can tell him anybody else he sends he better pay him more cause they’re going to earn it.

You want that gun pick it up.

I wish you would.

Eric: Howard Hawks the thing from another world provided even more inspiration for Mr. Carpenter. He remade the film itself in 1982 but even before that. Shades of Hawk’s unstoppable boogie man can be found in Mr. Carpenter’s most famous film. Mr. Carpenter created the slasher genre with one film and teenagers have never been safe since.

–No reason no conscience no understanding and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death of good or evil right or wrong.

We had no clue we were just a bunch of kids.–

John Carpenter: Making a movie you know and make it an exploitation horror film back in those days. Indies were not arthouse films. They were really exploitation films action or horror or science fiction. They were little movies that a company could bicycle around the country from one city to another and they could actually make some money on it. No we had no idea nobody did. We were just having a good time making movies we were young had hair it was great.

Eric: Once his budgets became bigger so did his stress.

John Carpenter: The minute you move out of a small project that you control everything gets compounded if you write it and you direct it and maybe you produce it you hit up your friends and your family for the budget and you get something because you want to make a Hollywood movie or you want to make a feature film.

The minute that you start dealing with Hollywood or I say the movie business is the minute you start learning what its all about because people are putting up money to make money. So the pressure on you is to deliver some bucks for it. And I went to USC film school way back when they didn’t teach us how to deal with stress. They just assumed that you kind of bring that along with you. And nowadays when you guys get your first feature unless its a big hit. I worry for you because they don’t give you any time to mature as a filmmaker. Its one time and out its really ruthless these days. Every decision you make gets questioned unless you kind of maneuver your way through that and try to gouge out a space for yourself or make them afraid of you where they are afraid to ask you to do anything they’re afraid to come down on you. And that’s real hard to do it’s very tricky. Everybody faces this. And when you get into a cast member who wants to control your movie tell you what to do. Two weeks into a shoot because you can’t fire him because you’ve shot all of his friends and you’re —-.

— TBig Big time but it’s all fine. Don’t worry about a thing.

Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be right now that maybe one or two of us by spring it could be all of us.

This thing doesn’t want to show itself it wants to hide inside an imitation you see when a man bleeds it’s just tissue. And blood from one of you things won’t obey when it’s attacked. It’ll try and survive. It’ll fight if it has to. But it’s vulnerable out in the open. If takes us over then it has no more enemies nobody left to kill it.

And then it’s won. —

Eric:30 years one reboot and even a videogame later the thing has withstood the test of time and is now viewed as a modern horror classic but it didn’t start out that way.

John Carpenter: The thing was not a commercial nor critical success when it was released it was released the summer of 82 when this same studio released E.T. and everybody wanted it up cry. They didn’t want a downbeat end of the world type deal. I think the fans turned on the film pretty severely because they thought I raped a classic the original Christian Nyby Howard Hawks picture. Anyway I didn’t recover from the disaster of that movie for quite a while. The movie’s can last. They can last beyond their initial box office release now you guys may not be aware of how many classic American films came out were bombs. Nobody liked them. And then they grew. You know. Citizen Kane wasn’t a great hit. Vertigo was condemned and was a failure. Upon its release it’s a wonderful life. That movie they show on Christmas and it tanked. Nobody wanted to see it. It was only later that it was shown on television and home video that it became popular.

So it’s really it’s really odd what happens.

Eric: The things use of practical effects continues to impress even in the modern age of green screens and CGI.

John Carpenter: In the case of the thing the creature was very ill defined in the screenplay and everybody is thinking nobody knew what to do with it. And there is an old fashioned idea I guess it goes back to Val Lewton that if you’re going to make a movie about a monster you never want to really see it. You want to keep it in the dark because it’s more effective that way.

At least that’s the thinking in kind of rich liberal middle brow Hollywood. And I made the mistake of trying something different which is to bring this thing out into the light and show it and show it going through its gyrations in front of you because of this story see the story’s about this creature this alien who can imitate anything and has throughout his travels or her travels in the universe. So when it starts imitating to survive it’s going to start looking like the other creatures that it’s imitated. And also he has no respect for the human form or body. So it’s going to rip apart. Which I thought was in the 1980s there was a big huge body culture going on in America at least maybe the world. There’s a lot of the Jane Fonda workout. Everybody got concerned about how they looked their bodies and how thin they were. It was huge. And I thought well this is a great time to be just kind of take that go —- you.

Let me let me disturb you on a basic level here about the way you look and about your body because really nobody gives a —-.

That was the thought Rob Bottin was my special effects coordinator and creator and he said it could look like anything. So let’s make stuff that looks amazing. So I had a whole raft of designers just designing art and it went from everything there was one scene it looks like a flower. Another thing of course this guy’s head comes off which is my favorite scene in the film. But we did it and the audiences went and hated it. And years later everybody is going ooh and aah but that’s the way it goes.

Eric: Though the tools have changed the process of making movies remains almost dogmatically the same.

John Carpenter: You know that’s one thing I wish had changed about the movie business that has never changed. It is a grind to make a film to make a big film. It’s a real grind in terms of technology of movie making that constantly changes and it’s a tool. You guys got to look at it like a tool.

It’s something that can further your vision of whatever you’re doing whether it’s a match shot or whether you’re imagining some creature that’s impossible. Or whether you’re imagining some world that you want to explore. The technology at your disposal now is unlike anything that’s ever been before it’s great you guys are lucky you’re also lucky that you can buy or rent or get a hold of inexpensive equipment and you could do it on digital and make your own damn movie. So we didn’t have that when I was young. And you guys can watch movies and you can watch old films you can watch them on DVD or you can watch them on whatever you can watch them on your telephone your iPhone. So you guys are really lucky and I’m envious of where you are and the time you’ve come along. But they’ve never improved they’ve never streamlined the motion picture technique. They still do it on a board. They still figure out the shooting days on a board whether it’s a virtual board or actually they make one with strips and an eighth of a page and half a page you shoot three and a half pages in a day. Can I get that done in the afternoon. They make you get up you know and show up at 7:00 in the morning when no one’s ready to do creative —- at 7:00 in the morning. I haven’t even had coffee at it. So it’s always the same. Then in television and some low budget films.

They start the workweek on Monday 7:00 in the morning and then during the week they move the call time back. So on Friday you’re shooting nights. They do that because they can cheat you because you don’t have the time on the weekend to catch up on your rest to start again Monday. It’s a grind. No one has fixed that no one has made it better. And I don’t understand why the Directors Guild try to show the studios that if you work three or four days a week you can get more done because the crew wouldn’t be so tired.

We’ve actually had deaths of people driving home after working 17 18 hour days they get into a car accident.

And they didn’t want to hear about because they’re geared to punish the filmmaker. No they’re not. But I’m saying that because. It’s awful. I don’t know maybe you guys love to get up in the morning. I never did. I was always so anyway. That would be if one of you could design a system of shooting a movie that wasn’t this same old factory setup that we’ve had since the beginning of studios and make it work and make it easier on people you’d make millions of dollars. OK. And if you could figure out how to light a scene quicker. This is what I hoped would digital came in. I hope that we wouldn’t have to spend all the time we do on film lighting a scene. Why can’t these cameraman come up with some simple techniques. Why do they have to have top light and backlight and sidelight.

What is all that —-.

That’s the other thing that really has it changed some of the lighting schemes. There was a big change in the 70s when they did overhead lighting on the Godfather movies. They just use tarps and shoot the bedsheets and stuff like that make it all come from overhead with shadows and faces. And nowadays you can work the contrast or the color or the exposure on the computer. So it’s a lot simpler that way and you can kind of get the effect of that.

But the basics of cinematography haven’t changed. One of John Carpenter’s most recognizable tools is his use of music. It only takes a few notes to know. You’re watching a John Carpenter film. He scored almost all his own movies with one notable exception.

The nature of music what it does for films is enhance the scene.

And for the thing the music was done by Ennio Morricone he’s a rather famous composer the spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood and once upon a time in the West were scored by him he’s an incredible artist and composer. And we had a chance to work with him on this and he was just brilliant his job is to narrate and characterize and provide a sensuality to the film through music that’s his whole job. And anytime I do the music myself all I do is accentuate the scenes and make them work. Try to cover up the —- ups that I do as a director through music.

Eric: Directors will often talk lovingly or not so lovingly about their stars. Mr. Carpenter raved about one cast member in the thing who was both remarkably instinctual and dangerously volatile.

John Carpenter: The main dog in this was a wolf and they’re smarter. But they’re a little dangerous on the set. He would come in and we’d have minimal crew we’d have the operator focus puller myself and the dolly grip and the actors and for about 15 or 20 minutes he would wander around us and get used to our smell they said Don’t pet him don’t touch him don’t necessarily look at him. Just sit here don’t talk loud. Let him be with you a little bit and he did something in one shot I’ve never seen an animal do his job as actor was to come down a hallway look in a room on the left. Look in a room on the right. Look back in a room on the left stand there and then go in. And we put a camera right in front of it. We’re tracking with him down the hallway. And his job also is not to look at the camera.

And by God this dog is seven or eight times just like that. It was jaw dropped. Now he’s not with us anymore. Jeb is his name. He was a great great dog and a great actor. We didn’t use him in every shot we use stand in dogs but the trainer brought a unique performing animal to the movie. And had I not had that dog. The movie wouldn’t be as good. He was unbelievable. So yeah animals can be really tough. Horses don’t stop where you want them to they take a —- in the middle of the scene. You know if you watch westerns you see all sorts of things go on that you took for granted we were watching them but you see actors kind of they’re out of control. I watch a scene in the original True Grit nowadays where somebody is about to fire a shot and you see John Wayne reach up and grab the horse he’s on before the shots fired so he knows the horse is going to bolt. So he’s just thinking ahead just trying to control it for the shot kids. Boy there’s some great kid actors. They just come and do it. So you don’t have to really worry too much. Then there’s some that are troubled. It all depends man. But generally speaking you know you just don’t know with kids and animals. You get the right ones and you’re all set.

Eric: His praise for frequent leading man Kurt Russell was equally as effusive.

John Carpenter: He’s a great great performer and great actor. He’s you know he thinks he is old now. He doesn’t want to do any more action movies. He believes some strange things sometimes. I don’t know if you know about Kurt Russell. He is to the right of Attila the Hun I mean he is extreme right and I’m extreme left. But it’s love of cinema and love of the craft of movies that keeps us together. So it just shows you what the important things are in life. If you love something the movie making process in our case then you can get along. You never know. That’s one thing you say in this business. Never say never about anything. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. But no he’s been a friend for many years many years. Kurt’s a great guy. And he can imitate. Like the thing he could do an imitation of anybody. Any actor. He does an imitation of me. It’s unbelievable. He’s a born mimic. That’s one of the reasons he’s such a great actor is he mimics people it’s really astonishing.

Eric: Though he’s known for slicing and dicing his cast onscreen. Mr. Carpenter always shows his actors the utmost respect.

John Carpenter: I want to see several things at once I want to see first and foremost what do they look like you know in person. Is there a bad angle. And secondly the personality. Are they open are they guarded about being directed or authority figures. What do you think of the screenplay and the material. How much do they want to change. You’re trying to assess all these different things real quickly. But directors are all different in how they deal with casting Clint Eastwood for instance casts off of tapes that are submitted to him. He doesn’t read anybody. He gets a list a bunch of actors put their performances on tape and he pops it in the machine. That one not that one that one. That’s how he casts. So it’s different for everyone depends on what you’re comfortable with. I want to sit down with somebody and see if we can have a connection because that’s what acting directing is all about my job as a director is to be there to help you give the performance whatever you need as an actor. Is what my job is to provide if you need a bad father I can be mean all the time. If you need a good father I can be that a psychiatrist. It all depends on the person. That’s the whole secret of all of it is to everybody get comfortable. Get comfortable with the guy who’s directing you as an actor and the director getting comfortable that you have the ability to do it even if it means running afoul of the screenwriters.

From personal experience the two experiences that I’ve had with screenwriters. One was on big trouble little china and one was on this movie I made called Memoirs of an invisible man was my Chevy Chase movie. And both times my choice of leading lady the writer and writers were not very happy with it and they wanted to rewrite the scenes. And in the case of big trouble will China. Kim Cattrall came to me and said Please get this guy away from me because it makes me feel like —- he’s tearing me down. He doesn’t like me. He doesn’t think I can play this part. And everybody thought of Kim Cattrall at that time as sort of the girl from Porky’s who could do an orgasm. They didn’t take her seriously. She just a terrific comedienne just terrific. So I had to throwing him off the set and he was a friend of mine and then the same thing with Daryl Hannah. She comes to play this part and the writers start writing her like like some stupid girl and she says What are they doing. I signed on to do this and I just had to get rid of them. The writers want to be on the set. The writers guild wants the same contract that writers have in plays where you can’t change a word. And that’s what they’ve always wanted. And they hate directors hate directors and they hate people changing their words. And I don’t blame them I’m a writer I didn’t like it either but that’s the way it is. You know actors will come in and say no I’m going to change that.

They say whatever they want to.

So it’s a mixed thing. You know that famous story cautionary tale about a movie called I can’t remember the name of it altered states a movie I particularly like Paddy Chayefsky was the writer of that was on the set and just gave them hell because it wasn’t the way he wanted it and ended up taking his name off and changing it. And you get that sometimes it’s not pleasant. Well after we started working. If we get the actors say anything close to what you write you’re happy.

Eric: Almost all of Mr. Carpenter’s biggest films have been rebooted or remade or given a whole bunch of sequels which is not the least bit surprising to him.

John Carpenter: First of all remakes in general are popular now because of the amount of money a company has to spend advertising to get people in the theaters. And one way to cut through the clutter of advertising that’s out there is to come with a title in recent memory that they’ve heard of. So for instance all the horror remakes. The thinking is maybe you saw it with your brother when you were young on home video or you’ve seen it on television. We’re going to update it. So it has a built in awareness which is the number that they’re trying to reach to get the audience the customer out there aware that your movie is in the theaters. It’s called show business. It’s not called show art unless you’re very lucky or very successful like Jim Cameron can write his own movies and have final cut and get them in theaters. Unlike the rest of us peons. You have to compete with other films that are out there and one way of driving through to the audiences that your movie is going to be playing is to do a remake because the title is familiar. The title has awareness. I mean look at the number of movies that open every weekend and people it’s all a blur to them. Maybe I want to see the Adam Sandler movie but I don’t care about this other one. So are you trying to penetrate this advertising fog. And that’s one way of doing it but there are still really fine really creative movies being made now don’t subscribe to that idea. It’s all bull—-. There’s no even remakes.

They’ll just do a new take on something completely different. And that tends to be why they remake horror horror has been with cinema since the very beginning. It grew up part and parcel with cinema and it will always be with us it’s one of the most popular genres of all time and it’s an all purpose genre because it keeps changing every culture every few years it morphs it changes into something else it brings the sensibilities of the age in which it’s made. That’s what’s so fabulous. If you look at Frankenstein or Dracula or the Bride of Frankenstein the Karloff films. They are very much of the thirties and the depression their depression era movies they’re speaking to those audiences but if you look at modern horror films or speaking to you guys and they bring the sensibility that you’ve become used to seeing and you demand seeing in film

Eric: these remakes have enabled Mr. Carpenter to fulfill one of his lifelong dreams.

John Carpenter: My absolute favorite part of this business is that when somebody wants to remake one of my films what I do is if I’ve written it or originated the idea I extend my hand like this and they put a check right there. And I don’t have to do anything. My entire life I’ve been trying to figure out how to make money at doing nothing.

Eric: As a student raised on classic cinema John Carpenter is now the one influencing others. Escape from New York. The thing Halloween and his other films continue to resonate with audiences and inspire filmmakers even decades after they first hit the big screen. John Carpenter has truly earned the title master of horror. This episode was written by me. Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden produced by David Andrew Nelson Kristian Hayden and and myself executive produced by Jean Sherlock. Dan Mackler and Tova Laiter associate produced by Vinny Sisson big special thanks goes out to Sajja Johnson Chris Devane and the staff and crew who made this possible. This is a production of New York film Academy’s media content department and always magical Los Angeles. To learn more about our programs check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes.

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